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The influence of virtual meeting technology will have a long-lasting impact on travel programs after the crisis.

That’s according to a survey of senior travel buyers that Skift commissioned through Netherlands-based Cortas (Corporate Travel Association).

Skift also quizzed those members who are responsible for spending of between $10 million to $100 million per year on how they are assessing new supplier hygiene standards and dealing with airline refunds.

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Virtual Transition

Virtual meetings look set to significantly hit travel budgets in the future.

Three-quarters said the pandemic would lead to their allocated travel spend being cut. Just 17 percent replied there would be no change, while 8 percent said they were unsure. Of those who predicted a budget cut, almost two-thirds (58 percent) said this would be a direct result of the increase in virtual meetings during the crisis.

Their comments included: “We’ve not got a preference for virtual meetings, but we see that virtual meetings combined with face-to-face meetings (and thus travel) is the best practice for the future.”

Others replied virtual meetings would replace some travel “because we learned it is doable and we reduce the CO2 footprint” while another stated their program would involve “a combination of greater use of virtual and adjusting travel to business-critical travel only”.

When asked if their company’s travel policy would be altered due to coronavirus, a quarter of respondents said changes were being planned, with one revealing 80 percent of internal meetings would now be conducted virtually going forward.

Despite the considerable impact on both budgets and policy, more than half (58 percent) said they would not be responsible for managing virtual meetings, with the remainder (42 percent) saying they were unsure if it would fall into their department.

They did believe, however, there would be more collaboration with their IT departments on the horizon, and that the travel department would have “more of a say and responsibility to initiate business cases in this space.”

Safety Concerns

Meanwhile, as hotels and airlines roll out new hygiene measures and social distancing rules, can travel managers keep on top of these schemes and reassure their employees about the future safety of business travel?

One survey respondent replied: “It’s difficult because this highly depends on local measures. I expect vendors will all cope with social distancing in different ways, so it’s difficult to create one message globally. It also remains to be seen whether the focus will be on social distancing or personal protection, such as face masks.”

The local factor was echoed by another travel manager: “It will be difficult to communicate this, as information is hyperlocal. We have a responsibility to inform our travelers, but ultimately they will be deciding. We’ll not force anyone to travel.”

Another revealed they were working with their global security and resilience team to “at least give staff all the information they need prior to traveling, if any,” while one respondent said: “We need a proper communication we’re working on first drafts.”

These efforts were also forming part of other projects, including the creation of a “return to travel framework” set up alongside HR, employee services and technology teams, and a dedicated communications pack that would be issued once travel resumes.

‘Refunds a Disaster’

For months now, corporate travel agencies have criticized airlines over the use of vouchers and credit notes instead of refunds. But some of Cortas members voiced concerns about their own travel agencies.

One travel manager said: “It’s a disaster and there is a total lack of thinking outside the box. Our agency is definitely showing a lack of adaptability.”

Another stated: “Our agency’s tools are not capable of tracking this, it seems to be a work in progress. Also, the global distribution systems do not seem to be equipped for this unusual situation.”

Meanwhile, a common complaint was that the refund process, at least for Europe, tended to be manual, while in the U.S. there were automated tools.

Cortas said it planned to debate these survey results at an internal event on May 15.

Photo Credit: Business travel could return at significantly reduced levels after crisis. Saulo Mohana / Unsplash